Everyone inside the Beltway knows that Congress is in dire need of strong medicine, and 90 percent of Americans agree. Congress as a whole is less popular than it’s been since polling was invented. Unfortunately, too few of my colleagues are listening and focusing their efforts on healing the sick branch of government.
I’ve been working on fundamental reforms in Congress for many years, including a book published in 2006 and a major speech at Harvard last year. I am delighted that we have a rare chance this year to turn reform ideas into reality.
Last week, I joined my colleague Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.) in testifying before the Senate Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs Committee about our No Budget, No Pay Act. This bill would keep members of Congress from getting paid if we don’t pass a budget and spending bills on time. Pay could not be recouped retroactively.
Why such a drastic measure? Congress has missed so many budget and appropriations deadlines over the years that no one takes these deadlines seriously. For far too long, we have run government by continuing resolutions instead of annual appropriations. We often fund programs on a short-term basis, sometimes month-to-month or even week-to-week. Political standoffs have even led to complete government shutdowns. This is inexcusable. We no longer have “one nation, under God, indivisible,” but “one nation, yet again, interrupted.”
Our start/stop government is giving everyone whiplash. America is the injured victim. Congress used to be able to get away with it, but no more. For the first time in history, Standard & Poor’s downgraded U.S. Treasury bonds last summer because of our budget deficits and political bickering. S&P’s negative outlook on congressional management continues. We face further downgrades unless Congress begins acting responsibly.
I am encouraged, however, because the Senate hearing was the first institutional indication that Congress knows it is sick. No Budget, No Pay is unpopular with some members, but we have a growing list of several dozen co-sponsors.
In a normal year, reform efforts like No Budget, No Pay would have zero chance of becoming law. Business-as-usual would prevail. This year, however, is different. The public is tired of our blame games. The nonpartisan citizen group No Labels is strongly supporting the legislation with its national advocacy network. Our cause is gaining momentum, even with our most stubborn colleagues.
Will Congress be able to heal itself? I hope so. I revere Congress as an institution, and I love it enough to tell the truth, even when it is difficult to hear. Our challenge is to find reforms that Congress will swallow. The best medicine won’t work if Congress gags, but more palatable reforms must be strong enough to work. Congress is its own doctor; neither the President nor the Supreme Court can save us. This election year, many of our colleagues will be choosing either reform or defeat; I am hoping that they will choose reform.
Rep. Cooper (D-Tenn.) represents Tennessee’s Fifth Congressional District.